July 27-28, 2017
The sun and the animals greeted us early in the morning on the last full day of our road trip. Not far from the lush permafrost was semi-barren land, once again, and tranquil streams in which the sand-colored mountains were reflected.
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Last call for pancakes, slathered in honey! And strong coffee to help us survive another day of going off-road in search of a short-cut. The scenery was especially splendid, as if to say goodbye in a way that would remain indelibly imprinted on our hearts and minds. Huge granite peaks hopscotched with small piles of lighter rocks that seemed spaced like a temple complex.
Mongolia is being impacted by climate change, which is causing desertification of pasture areas as shown in the following video. You can also read more about it in a recent article in the Washington Post HERE.
More ancient burial grounds rimmed swaths of pasture where hundreds of sheep and goats still grazed. And, nearby, a group of enormous yaks flourished.
I had forgotten how big these animals are! To be on the safe side, we chose a lunch spot a safe distance away. After lunch we saw one very young yak, possibly a newborn, wandering around. His mother seemed to have abandoned him. Fortunately, we passed two herders on horses as we drove away. When we told them of the little fellow, they signaled their thanks and took off to check the animal. Let’s hope they found the mother.
Then came the camels. Again, I marveled at these creatures, which were so strangely put together, with their haughty expression and imperious manner.
It wasn’t long before we entered a real desert with windswept dunes and heavy sand, piled like snowbanks, the result of the driest year in a long time. Thus began another discussion about global warming and its deleterious effect on Mongolia. According to Algaa, he had been in this area two months previously and said that there had been pastureland at that time. It had been the worst drought he had ever seen. It didn’t seem possible that so much sand could have accumulated since spring.
By mid-afternoon whatever road tracks had existed were gone, and we were all alone in the vast desert. The drifts were gorgeous to behold, but caused even the van to get stuck.
Again, we all piled out, and twice Algaa had to resort to digging. We walked along, feeling helpless, while Bogie pushed the van. At one point we reached a high ridge and Algaa masterfully maneuvered the van over the edge and down the steep slope. It looked as if it was skiing on its tires. Oh, how I wished my video camera worked, but the battery was dead. It was actually a lot of fun, however, to slip and slide in the sand all the way to the bottom…with utter abandon.
It wasn’t until after six that we got out of the desert and onto the sparsely-grassed steppe. A few gers appeared and the mountains seemed closer. We breathed a sigh of relief and started looking for a stream so we could camp. I ached all over because of the bumping, but a night’s sleep under a starry sky was the perfect antidote.
Our last morning started early as we drove out of the desert and headed for the airport. We were treated to more of the craggy, solitary scenery we had seen the day before, only this was grander and more rugged.
The Uliasti airport is a neat little place. And we enjoyed our wait, mixing with people from various countries. There were several Peace Corps volunteers and teachers, all with an appreciation for the unique gifts one gets from tasting the bounty of another country, thus enlarging their own world. These were interesting, adventurous people, who weren’t afraid to try something new and immerse themselves in a culture totally foreign to theirs. That’s what I love about travel!
This was our farewell to Algaa, and it was difficult. We knew we would see Bogie when he returned to Ulaanbaatar with our heavy items that couldn’t go on the small plane, but we would not see Algaa, again. And he had been a delightful, cheerful, and strong companion throughout our bumpy journey. Bless you, Algaa!
I love little planes. They go close to the ground and you always know the engine is running, for it’s practically in your lap. And you can also see some marvelous scenery…those isolated hills that not even Algaa’s van could penetrate.
Our last two days in Ulaanbaatar were an adventure in itself. Just getting from the airport to our apartment was a new experience neither of us wishes to repeat! We had to locate the owner’s brother to let us in, but we also had no real idea of our address, except that it was in a certain section of the city. And it was getting dark. And, of course, we didn’t know the language. Oh, Bogie, how we miss you! But, then, isn’t it challenges that make life interesting?
When we got settled, our first thought was to try to explore some of the places in this big, complex city that we had missed at the beginning, but it quickly turned into a frantic last minute shopping spree to buy unusual and exquisite handwork for friends and relatives. All of this we did while suffering from extreme heat after coming from the higher elevations. And nothing was air-conditioned! Well, I thought, consoling myself, it’s better for the environment.
We soon realized that the highlight of our journey through Mongolia was not the city and its restaurants and shops and temples. It was the expansive, wild nature of the land; the wide-open plains with their gers and welcoming nomads; the steppe; the mysterious desert; and the mountains.
Nobody could have asked for a more generous, thoughtful guide than Bolormunkh Erdenekhuu, our Bogie, a man who loves his country and knows it in the minutest detail. But his knowledge is not limited to his particular corner of the universe. He can converse about world issues and human relations, and revels in solving present and future problems. He is a real joy to know. And during our month together, he went out of his way to anticipate our needs and be flexible in his plans. In the final hours, Bogie drove me to the airport and stayed with me until my plane left for Seattle at 5 A.M. This man typifies the sort of hospitality and generosity we experienced in Mongolia and will always remember. I look forward to the time I can host him on Whidbey Island and introduce him to the wonders of the Northwest.
Final travel note:
I keep hearing people complain about dreary, cramped, seven-hour plane rides on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, where the only thing you dream about is how soon you’ll be able to get off the thing! Well, after making numerous 20 and 24-hour journeys, this falls on deaf ears, and I feel obliged to give a few tips to the traveler who is contemplating a trip to Asia. Mind you, all the grief is worth it to me, but you might like to have a few details so you won’t complain about simple trips to Europe…even from Seattle.
I think I described a rather pleasant layover I had some years ago at the two Tokyo airports. They were well-organized and had cubicles where, for a few dollars, you could take a shower or catch up on your sleep in a clean bed. Of course, the challenge was to find such services in the enormous terminal, but that just added to the adventure. After spending all your money you could then recline on long comfortable couches in quiet lounges, disturbed only by the snoring of fellow passengers as tired as you were. And if you were lucky you had enough change left to buy a simple sushi after your nap.
Beijing airport is another matter entirely! Sleepless, I arrived at 8 A.M., and endured eight hours of going from one terminal by bus and train to another. Believe me, I was happy to get on the Dreamliner and collapse. It was as strenuous as any Himalayan trek, ‘though it lasted only one day.
After six hours I had been told where to find clean water (Don’t drink it, unless you’re on a desert island and the alternative is death. I did, and had some nasty repercussions), immigration, and how to transfer from terminal three to terminal two. While riding on the train and bus that brought us to the main terminal, I had seen a town totally enveloped in a fog of pollution, There were some lovely gardens and parks, but everyone was wearing a surgical mask. And many of the workers at the airport did the same.
One bright spot was the blessed carts for luggage, which are free everywhere but in the United States. Nobody could negotiate the endless red tape of this airport without them, where one line ends and morphs into another. After about a mile of walking in circles, you come upon the immigration/passport control line. Then you double back once more and wait in the “transfer” line. More stamps. More questions. More small slips of paper to be filled out. Soon you find yourself in the center of the vast terminal looking for the “down” escalator to take you to the bus, which takes you to terminal two. Oh, no, I forgot the previous step, which was to crowd into a train, which went to C-1 from where you could get the transfer bus. Are you confused?
At this point I was nodding off while sitting up, and my neck pain was reminiscent of how I felt on one of Algaa’s road escapades. But I was meeting a lot of interesting, albeit disgruntled fellow-travelers, which lightened my mood considerably. Once I arrived in terminal two I had to wait an hour until the Hainan Airline desks were open. It was packed, but I must have looked half-dead, for a nice lady sent me to the business class line (with a wink), and I was checked in and given a boarding pass immediately. This time I was careful not to lose my baggage tags that checked me through to Seattle. But you don’t have time for that story! Be thankful for small blessings.
I had thrown away the tofu saved from last night’s dinner, since it tasted like cardboard, but food was the last thing I wanted. I couldn’t wait to board the plane and sit back and maybe even crack a New Yorker. I’ve never had a layover where I didn’t even have time to read! Forewarned is forearmed….